McIntosh Angus Ranch; Colfax, Washington
In the heart of the Palouse (pəˈluːs) region of the Pacific Northwest there is a cattle producer who has experienced nearly six decades of implementing holistic management practices across the same property. An early adopter of management intensive grazing, Rhod McIntosh experienced a lot of suspicious side-glances early in the development of his cattle operation. Undeterred, he vowed to keep an open mind to “doing things differently.” Rhod and his wife, Barb, run McIntosh Angus Ranch as holistic grazers, practicing techniques handed down from Allan Savory— president and cofounder of the Savory Institute.
Rhod was and continues to be a true rarity in his region: a trend setter (or perhaps a “trend bucker,” depending on how you look at it). To understand how unique it is to be raising any livestock in the Palouse region, let alone with a focus on soil health, you have to understand the agricultural history of the region. Although it’s thought that the Palouse name may have been adopted from a French word meaning “short and thick grass” or “lawn,” which is true of the original prairie ecosystem, starting in the 1880’s the fertile loess hills of the region were rapidly converted to wheat cropping. In 2003, Whitman County, of which Colfax is the seat, produced more barley, wheat, dry peas, and lentils than any other county in the United States. One of McIntosh’s early mentors told him, “if you want to raise livestock in this region, you have to want it more than you want to make the football team.”
McIntosh bought his first cattle in 1961 when he was 21 years old. He followed his father’s, and most producers of the time, conventional grazing practices. But being a keen observer, McIntosh took special note of an example he saw early in his career. It was the mid 70’s when a friend showed Rhod a picture of a small area of extremely lush, full spring grass growth. The area was the entire inside surface of a small corral where the producer’s cows had been locked in for protection from a storm the fall before. With the combination of a high stocking density and excess moisture, the rancher returned to quite a mess the next morning and was worried the corral would suffer significant long-term damage. However, quite the opposite turned out to be true: The following spring this turned out to be the most dense, abundant sward of grass on the ranch.
Later, after hearing about holistic grazing practices, McIntosh became intrigued and chose to learn more via a class taught through extension education from Washington State University. It was also around this time when a New Zealander by the name of John Pearson moved into the area, bought land and started grazing cattle. McIntosh recalls “little white fence posts” dotting Pearson’s land and wondering what in the world that crazy Kiwi could be doing. McIntosh has always been willing to try new things and look for ways to improve his operation, no matter how different or crazy it may seem to some. With all these experiences and information coming together at the same time, it seemed to McIntosh he had to at least try implementing holistic management on his farm and start utilizing electric fence to make managed grazing work. But where to start? That’s when McIntosh employed the advice of his Kiwi neighbor, which eventually lead to the start of John Pearson’s business, Pearson Farm & Fence.
It was in those early days that McIntosh and Pearson brainstormed ideas for both their businesses. McIntosh had familiarity with American cattle marketing and the land which they were both grazing on; Pearson had experience with New Zealand-style grazing and the products and setup that made it work. The two of them spent hours together working on the details of their business models. John’s wife Debbie called it “unsupervised thinking.” But, it was that unsupervised thinking that led to a successful beef operation, as well as a renowned farm and ranch store with unprecedented service for livestock producers in eastern Washington and western Idaho.
Rhod shared two key indicators that not only is life on the McIntosh Angus Ranch inherently more comfortable, but it’s also more comfortable from an economic perspective. Once McIntosh and Pearson got a reliable grazing plan in place and gave soil health a few years to improve, McIntosh saw a seventy-five percent increase in stocking rate on the same area of land. Not only has the ranch gone from a twenty head carrying capacity to thirty-five, they have also been successful in extending the grazing season and decreasing days of feeding hay. In an average year, the ranch feeds sixty fewer days of hay per year as compared to the years when they were continuously grazing. When the ranch receives adequate fall rainfall, that number can be as high as ninety fewer days on hay, for as few as thirty days of fed hay per year. McIntosh shared a slogan he’s forged over the years: “Every day a cow feeds herself, I make money. Every day I feed a cow, I owe money.”
When McIntosh looks back on the past six decades of his operation; how his perception of raising livestock and a family in rural America has changed, he says of his more recent years that “Life is pleasant. I now get to take pleasure in focusing on growing grass and not repairing machinery. I learned to make decisions based on what’s right for this operation and not based on what the neighbors are doing. It took forty years to finally think, ‘What am I doing driving this damn tractor every day?’ I can say I definitely have a better quality of life than in those early days when we were continuously grazing and making hay.”
McIntosh Angus Ranch isn’t only more economically viable with a more tranquil way of life, the land is richer. Over the years, McIntosh has seen multiple new springs flow from the ground with more water than before. Additionally, several years back, the McIntosh’s along with the local conservation district did various studies of a creek running through the property. The creek was being polluted with excess fecal matter at some point but it was impossible to identify where. Agents took water samples from the creek both before, within, and after the ranch’s property. The conclusion— McIntosh Angus Ranch property was actually filtering fecal content from the creek water which passed through it. Not only was the water being discharged from the ranch cleaner than the water coming in, it was also cooler; an indication that riparian zones across the ranch were in their prime and that McIntosh’s management practices were not only good for his land, but beneficial to downstream environments.
McIntosh, approaching 80, has slowed down over the years; because of this, he has chosen to slow his cattle rotations down to one move every two to three days. In his prime, McIntosh was moving the cattle once a day. Since this change, he’s noticed a decrease in forage production, having to cut back the number of cattle he can carry on the ranch. He knows this is a consequence of less intensive management. But McIntosh considers his work-life balance very satisfying right now and wouldn’t trade it for more money or more cows. Rhod McIntosh has accomplished his goal of increasing soil carbon content on his ranch and set the foundation for his major life goal; providing a way for more children to stay in Whitman County to produce more livestock.
If you’d like to increase thesoil health of your grazing livestock operation by utilizing managed grazing practices and you’d like an advisor like John Pearson to get you started, check out Gallagher’s network of Certified Pasture Pro’s. Each Gallagher Pasture Pro partner offers a yearly field day where they educate area grazing customers about grazing practices and the products that make them work. Be sure to check out the events page often to see when your local dealer will hold their training or keep up-to-date with all of Passion for Pasture’s events via our Facebook page.
Our Pasture Pro's have been trained to answer site specific questions and recommend designs related to managed grazing operations. Maybe you're interested in the highest quality, innovative animal management products on the market or fence and water system installation services? They offer that too!
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